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House of premiers: A new museum recognises the contributions of all the former PMs of India

Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya is a futuristic, transformative, high-tech and multigenerational experience in identity, innovation and participation.

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Museums can become a cultural hub for interactivity, especially for youngsters, and enhance their understanding of Indian heritage.

Last Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’— his monthly radio address to the nation—was mostly about museums. To garner interest in museums—an institution where objects of historical, scientific, or artistic interest are kept—Modi urged the youngsters to take quizzes on museums, make frequent visits to such places and post memories around them on social media.

The message resonated well with the recently inaugurated Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya in the national capital that exhibits remarkable achievements of all the former heads of the Indian republic and what the country has achieved in the last 75 years since independence.

Museums can become a cultural hub for interactivity, especially for youngsters, and enhance their understanding of Indian heritage. “Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya opens doors of knowledge, ideas, and experience for coming generations. Facing the challenges, every prime minister has tried to take the country forward. These are all things of public memory. If the youth and future generations know about the prime ministers, then they will get inspiration,” Modi said while inaugurating the museum on April 14 and highlighting the role it would play in sensitising the youth about the history of independent India.

Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya is a futuristic, transformative, high-tech and multigenerational experience in identity, innovation and participation. An interactive and immersive museum with audio, video and virtual reality experience dedicated to the prime ministers of India, it has been built in the heart of the national capital to honour the contributions of all the 14 PMs of India since independence, irrespective of their ideology, party, or tenure in office.

The message

The museum integrates the existing Teen Murti Bhawan in New Delhi, designated as Block I, with the newly constructed Block II. It includes the former Nehru Museum, which has a display on the life and contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. A number of gifts he received from world leaders but not exhibited so far have also been displayed in the renovated Block I. The colonial architecture of the old building has been modified to seamlessly integrate with contemporary audio-visual learning.

While the deliberation to recreate the museum started much before 2018 amid a political disagreement where some leaders opposed the making of the museum at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), stating that it could ‘dilute’ the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, the museum today is a new chapter in the history of museums and memorials in India. It stands as a testament to the history and heritage, beyond any partisan considerations, and adheres to objectivity.

“In India, unfortunately, museums and memorials were dealt with in a cross-partisan manner by the previous governments. Till now, we had limited museums of former prime ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri. The Sangrahalaya commemorates works of all prime ministers and has done away with a serious lacuna of many years. It is a monument of magnanimity of the present government and here, every PM’s tenure has been captured in an even-handed manner by NMML. The museum is a manifestation of recognition and articulation of gratitude of the nation towards all prime ministers. I believe that the path shown by this museum will be followed by future governments. The concept behind this museum shows how graciously PM Narendra Modi looks at all former PMs,” says Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, Member of Parliament and member of the executive committee of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), and president of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

In a seamless blend of the old and the new, the museum highlights the inclusive and accommodative elements of Indian culture. “This is a one-of-its-kind initiative and, as quoted by the Prime Minister, ‘we will move from exclusivity to inclusivity’ with the primary message to acknowledge and honour the work of every prime minister,” says A Surya Prakash, vice-chairman, executive council, NMML.

The museum recognises the freedom struggle and framing of the Constitution and showcases stories of how former prime ministers steered the nation. You will find anecdotes, stories, letters, slide shows, memorabilia, personal items, gifts, medals and commemorative stamps while taking an audio-guided tour to explore an interpretive and inspiring mix of exhibits in print, design, sculpture, photography, new media and other large-scale installations. For instance, you can see Chaudhary Charan Singh’s photographs, letters, books and diaries, Morarji Desai’s Bhagavad Gita, Mahatma Gandhi’s topi, kalam and rudraksh garland, among others. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharat Ratna, spectacles, wristwatch, some handwritten diaries of Chandra Shekhar, photographs of Indira Gandhi, her speech, archaeological material on the Pokhran nuclear test, documents on Bangladesh Liberation War and Rajiv Gandhi’s passion for computers, among others, also find space in the museum.

All the exhibits have been approved by the families of the former PMs who were contacted for information and artefacts, as the initiative holds a moment of pride and happiness for the families. “The museum is very much in taste with modern times and technology. At the outset, I’m happy that a museum that covers the life and times of all the prime ministers since independence has come to life and was built irrespective of the party they belong to. The museum demonstrates their contributions in ample measure during their tenure as PMs. Teen Murti is a huge complex and has been well utilised,” says Congress leader Anil Shastri, son of former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and the holding trustee of Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial in New Delhi. 

PV Prabhakar Rao, third son of PV Narasimha Rao as well as Member of Parliament, and Neeraj Shekhar, the son of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, also express gratitude. “Nobody, in fact, no other prime ministers’ families, thought that there would be a museum of this stature in India and this kind of concept would speak volumes about the history of the former prime ministers. I have received appreciation phone calls from other party members and those who are my father’s followers on the efforts gone behind this museum. Most families are happy, some may have reservations, but this is important for the future generation who can learn about the three-decade-old contribution of their leaders, especially my father. My younger daughter Raniya Shekhar was born in the year when my father died, so the museum is a learning experience for a youngster like her, in the age group of 15-35 years,” says Shekhar, who wants to part with some more handwritten and unpublished books of his late father for the museum.

Memoirs and more

While there is enough focus on memorabilia of different prime ministers, the families after visiting the museum are open to changes or bring in some value additions. Despite a focus on Chandra Shekhar’s pad yatra (foot march) and prime ministership, Shekhar feels his father’s leadership as a ‘Young Turk’ in conviction, courage and integrity in the fight against vested interests or his tenure in the years 1968-75 on how he worked with Indira Gandhi to bring changes to the country could be highlighted. “Since museum exhibits are part of an ongoing process, there is always a chance of change and addition to the existing line-up,” says Shekhar.

In addition to Lal Bahadur Shastri’s personal artefacts on display—a vase from Tashkent, badminton racket and charkha– his son, Anil Shastri, wants to donate a 1964 model of a Fiat vintage car to the Sangrahalaya. “A prized possession, which is currently exhibited in Delhi’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial, this car could be an added attraction to Shastriji’s segments on ‘Jai, Jawan, Jai Kisan’, the Tashkent Agreement, and his speeches on AIR. It needs to be strategically placed in the museum. I don’t think there is any PM in the world who took a loan for a car,” says Shastri. The car was bought by the former prime minister for Rs 12,000. He had only Rs 7,000 in the bank, so he applied to Punjab National Bank for a loan of Rs 5,000.

Shastri wants to part with this car since it is a symbol of personal integrity and value system, a message that can resonate with the public visiting a modern museum like Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya, which is estimated to have a huge footfall. “Shastri Memorial sees an average of over 2,500-3,000 people per day while the Sangrahalaya, which is managed by the Government of India, perhaps could get advisory to visit or make it part of the curriculum of government schools and educational institutes. The footfall could be well more than 10,000 per day at this scale,” adds Shastri.

The charkha given as part of Shastri’s dowry, which his in-laws insisted on, is now in the Sangrahalaya. The authorities have created and presented a replica of that charkha, now placed in Shastri Memorial. “It was close to my heart since my mother dearly placed it in the house. As a community gesture, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Shastriji and Gandhiji used to spin charkha on October 2 every year. It is a symbol of the freedom movement which we donated to the trust in 2005. Whether it is displayed in a museum or home, hardly matters,” shares Shastri, whose father’s tenure as prime minister lasted only 19 months—one among the shortest but still adequate space has been given for his contributions. “The slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, which is relevant even today and echoes across the length and breadth of the nation, has been depicted very prominently,” says Shastri.

There is keen interest in the life and times of visionaries like PV Narasimha Rao, who witnessed tough economic and political reforms. In the last two years, there have been over 25 books published on his five-year tenure as the prime minister of India, written by various authors and family members.

PV Prabhakar Rao, third son of PV Narasimha Rao, wants these books displayed at the Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya so that whoever comes to the museum can access his father’s legacy more than what has been currently displayed at the museum.

“In the last seven years, a lot of people have been waking up to write about his life and times, they want to know the real Narasimha Rao. German scholars are doing research on him, there is a film series being finalised … so, the awareness has already started, and this is something required for the sake of posterity. They should know what he has done, the challenges of time and what he has overcome and place Narasimha Rao in the right perspective,” says Rao, who is an entrepreneur.

Rao feels some more aspects can find place in the gallery—interest in music, books, computers and cinema. “It is good to bring out the aspect of the person—the prime minister is one aspect but the human aspect has to be portrayed. He was a trained Hindustani classical musician, picked up the keyboard in his later years and was ready for the concert. He could read, write and talk in over 15 languages, his quest for learning computers and the intricacies of machine code in programming languages. I have his old set of computers (eight) like the IBM clone which he bought in 1985, his collection of pens … for someone who wants to know him as a person, all these should be highlighted and displayed. These artefacts could be rotated so there will always be something new for the viewer,” says Rao.

Tech that

Technology in the museum has taken over the mummified version of the traditional one-way viewing of artefacts. It is one of the best tools to communicate stories and museums are now designed to communicate various aspects. “New-age museums that incorporate technology offer an ‘interactive’ way to learn about history. Especially the age group of 15-35 would hate going to museums but the way technology tells stories or history can help. It should be able to communicate the core message. The takeaways are important for the tech-savvy generation as the attention span is less and the stress is on the ‘wow’ and ‘awe’ factor,” says museum expert Vinod Daniel, chairman of the board for AusHeritage and board member of the International Council of Museums.

Similarly, a visually-appealing, 360-degree view of the experience can make one interact with all senses. “This is a welcome change and often an out-of-the-box experience to what museums generally offer. If the museum lends a narrative with integration of technology, it becomes exciting for viewers and makes the subject matter more interactive,” adds Kishwar Desai, chairperson, The Arts & Cultural Heritage Trust, who set up a Partition museum in Amritsar, and is currently working on Dara Shikoh Library building on Ambedkar University campus in Kashmere Gate to create memorabilia and stories about experiencing the horrors of Partition.

While artefacts with routinely organised displays have undergone a sea change the world over, the transformation is visible in the Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya with new technologies like AR, VR cleverly intertwined with the display of artefacts. “Apart from blending of technology, the museum has a refreshingly new dimension which is participation. Every visitor can participate in the museum and not be a mute spectator moving from one gallery to another, and in the process become part of the museum. He can click pictures with the PM, get a letter from his favourite PM—all these things open a whole new world for the present generation and they can enter very seamlessly into the era of which they were not a part of. This is something other museums need to try and replicate for the sake of establishing a live connection with otherwise lifeless objects in museums. If this is done, museums will become live-wire institutions,” adds Sahasrabuddhe.

A TRIBUTE TO EX-PMs

* Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya has been built at a cost of over Rs 300 crore
* It comprises two buildings (I & II) and 43 galleries
* The total area of the two buildings is over 15,600 sq m and can host over 4,000 visitors
* Museum hours: March to October—10 am to 6 pm; November to February—10 am to 5 pm; closed on Mondays
* For Indians, an entry ticket will cost Rs 100 through online booking and Rs 110 for offline. Foreigners will be charged Rs 750. Additional charges apply for ‘Handwriting Robot’ and ‘VR Helicopter Ride’ in ‘Bhavishya ki Jhalkiyan’

Highlights

* Interactive experiences like holograms, virtual reality, augmented reality, multi-touch, multimedia, interactive kiosks, computerised kinetic sculptures, smartphone applications, interactive screens, and experiential installations
* Former PMs’ personal items, gifts and memorabilia like medals or commemorative stamps provided by their families are on display
* An audio-guided smartphone tour in English and Hindi available for all programmes and exhibits
* Ramp access for wheelchairs is available free of charge at the museum entrance

Building I

* The Nehru Memorial Museum has been revamped and comprises belongings of the first PM of India, Jawaharlal Nehru
* Toshakhana houses more than 100 memorabilia and artefacts given by dignitaries and heads of states across the globe to all the PMs as gifts
* Makers of the Indian Constitution is a room dedicated to the Constituent Assembly and the story of the challenges they faced while drafting the Constitution

Building II

* The design of the museum building is inspired by the story of rising India, shaped and moulded by the hands of its leaders. The design incorporates sustainable and energy conservation practices
* No tree has been felled or transplanted during the course of construction work
* The logo of the Sangrahalaya represents the hands of the people of India holding the Dharma Chakra and symbolising the nation and democracy

Hall of fame

* A charkha (spinning wheel) which former PM Lal Bahadur Shastri received as wedding gift
* Handwritten jail diaries of Jai Prakash Narayan written during Emergency
* Badminton racquet of Lal Bahadur Shastri
* Morarji Desai’s Bhagavad Gita in English and his tulsi bead mala
* Original copy of Chaudhary Charan Singh’s book, India’s Poverty and its Solution, published in 1964
* P V Narasimha Rao’s spectacles
* Handwritten letters of Rajiv Gandhi to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Tech a look

* Parichay: A state-of-the-art 360-degree immersive room ushers you into the world of Indian PMs, showcasing their key contributions
* Freedom & Unity:  This room tells the story of the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi and the integration of the states achieved by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, etc
* Handwriting robot: The robot can write a quote of your favourite PM with his signature and your name embedded in the quote
* Picture and stroll with PM: Get a picture clicked with your favourite PM seated or walking in augmented reality
* Inside the museum is a 3D printed national emblem rotating in the air and an artistic mobile installation of multiple kinetic LED lights suspended from the ceiling in patterns of our national flag
* Lal Qile ki Prachir Se: A room with a replica of the rampart of Red Fort from where the PM delivers speech every year on Independence Day. Listen to those speeches with their hologram image
* Time machine: A show on the major achievements and milestones of Indian history that took place after independence
* Bhavishya ki Jhalkiyan: A helicopter pod ride equipped with virtual reality to enjoy 180-degree projection of India’s exciting futuristic developments

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